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ELECTIONS 2024 Eileen O'Neill Burke talks state's attorney run, judgeship, GOP ties
by Andrew Davis
2024-02-19

This article shared 9477 times since Mon Feb 19, 2024
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The Democratic primary in the race to succeed outgoing Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx involves two candidates with extensive backgrounds concerning law and government.

Eileen O'Neill Burke is a lifelong Democrat and fourth-generation Chicagoan. Her experience with the justice system began when she was a Cook County assistant state's attorney for a decade. In 2008, O'Neill Burke was elected to the Circuit Court of Cook County; in 2016, she was elected justice of the First District Appellate Court in Cook County.

During a recent conversation, O'Neill Burke discussed outgoing Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, the Safe-T Act and LGBTQ+ issues.

NOTE: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Windy City Times: What's different about running this time?

Eileen O'Neill Burke: Oh, Andrew, it's like comparing a pickleball tournament to a Klingon death match.

When you run for judge, people are really nice to you. You can't give your opinion on anything so there's not a lot of questioning—and, usually, no one gets antagonistic toward you. This is a horse of a different color.

WCT: The Cook County Democratic Party is backing your opponent—so do you have an uphill battle?

O'Neill Burke: You know, it's not a monolith because I've been getting a lot of support from people all over the county: Pat Dowell, Chris Taliaferro, Felix Cardona. Also, it's a countywide race and the suburbs are going very, very well for me. So is it more difficult? Absolutely—but it's not insurmountable. And we're at such a critical juncture right now and people aren't toeing the party line anymore. We can either keep going the way we are and keep losing businesses and people—or we can try to do this better.

WCT: What about the claims of Republican ties?

O'Neill Burke: I was head of the Illinois Judges Association, which is a statewide organization of 1,300 judges. Outside of Cook County, there are a lot of judges who are Republican. I got to know them as people, as jurists; I taught an education conference with one of them, and he's an excellent jurist—and he's a friend. I don't understand this constant vilification. And making a contribution to a judicial campaign of a highly regarded, highly respected jurist against a woman who was found to be not qualified—I'm not embarrassed by that. I like to take people as they are and not apply labels to them. If I found his views repugnant, I would not have supported him—but that has nothing to do with him being Republican or Democrat.

The whole time I was president of the Illinois Judges Association, we had an initiative called the Judicial Independence Project. It involved evaluating judges based on how they do their job, regardless of party affiliation. Do they follow the law? Do they have good judgment? If we start painting judges with political stripes, it will start to hinge on who's yelling the loudest—and then we're all in trouble.

I went to Israel with a judges' delegation. The whole country was shutting down over judicial independence; I don't know if you remember, but last spring they were passing [measures] that said the legislature could overrule everything the court did. So it brought into concrete relief what could happen if we start letting judges be painted with political stripes. All of a sudden, you're turning with the wind—and I think we're seeing that with the U.S. Supreme Court right now. A significant part of the population is not happy with the Supreme Court right now because they feel like their rulings are based on whatever the political agenda is—and that's not right.

And a prosecutor needs to have the exact same qualities. They need to be fair and be ethical. We don't want them hewing the party line; we want them to follow the law. That guarantees everyone's getting a fair shake.

WCT: What grade would you give Kim Foxx on the job she did? Why or why not?

O'Neill Burke: That answer has a caveat. So there were things she did that were excellent. There's a focus on restorative justice; that was good and I want to build on that. I want to create an entire bureau of restorative justice where we pull veterans, mental health and drug courts all in one place so we can cross-pollinate and figure out what's working.

For example, Washington, D.C. has a model mental-health court for the entire nation. They're getting people off the street and making them productive citizens. DuPage County has one of the model drug courts for the entire country. We don't need to reinvent the wheel; we need to figure out what's working and implement it here. If we could appeal to a different type of law student; if they want to work with a multi-governmental agency working on getting people back on track, I want to have the most innovative and effective restorative-justice system in the entire nation. I want this to be the place where people want to go to learn how to get people back on track. So I give [Foxx] an "A" for restorative justice.

So right now the state's attorney's office is woefully understaffed; there are 160 vacancies in the felony trial division alone. So what means is that basic things are not getting done. Women can't get orders of protection because there's no state's attorney to process the paperwork. Defendants are sitting in custody for years, waiting to go to trial. So the system is just not working for people, and some of that is caused by mismanagement. When missteps occurred, instead of saying, "I'm sorry and I own it," she would fire her chief of felony prosecution or [someone else].

I can guarantee that at some point during a state's attorney's career, a case will blow up on them. I'm not talking about misconduct or unethical behavior; it's just the nature of what we do. And suddenly, there was a very loud statement that if you screw up and a case blows up, you're going to be fired. And when that happened, supervisors left, first chairs left—and things spiraled. Now we have a dearth of institutional knowledge and that is a huge problem. So what I want to do to correct that is that I've started talking with retired judges and asking them to form an educational unit in which we'd go over the constitution and case law. Then we're going to market working at the state's attorney's office like getting a master's in trial work. There'll be no better training ground for prosecutors in the entire country. I think we're going to appeal to a wide swath of law students—those who want to go into restorative justice and those who want to be trial attorneys—and we're going to get the office restaffed that way.

So, as far as management goes, I'm not going to give [Foxx] a good grade on that, because there was a lot of mismanagement. But we can fix it.

WCT: What are your thoughts on the Safe-T Act?

O'Neill Burke: So the Safe-T Act represents a once-in-a-generation seismic change to our criminal-justice system.

With pretrial detention, judges would previously set a bond based on how serious an offense was or how serious the offender's background was. Now, it's no longer how much money you can post. The question is now "Are you a danger to the community?" And I think everybody can agree that that's what the criterion should be. But one of the seismic changes of the act is that it changes the role of the state's attorney. Now, the state's attorney needs to file a petition to detain; if the state's attorney doesn't file the petition, it doesn't matter if somebody is El Chapo or a serial killer—judges have to release the offender. That's a seismic change.

It has become exponentially more important that we put someone in charge who knows what they're doing and who will put structure, training and criteria in place for bond court.

WCT: Could you talk about your experience with LGBTQ+ issues and organizations?

O'Neill Burke: I have seen enormous change in 30 years. When I was a state's attorney in the '90s, AIDS was so rampant and there was so much prejudice against people infected with AIDS, especially at police stations; they didn't want people to sit with them. My mom was a nurse and who was very affirming and welcoming to everyone, so I grew up in a household where we didn't judge people that way. I always had a problem with how people were ostracized.

So we started to see changes with domestic-violence cases. You couldn't get protection if you were in a same-sex relationship, but now that has changed significantly.

What I'm seeing now is that same type of antagonism directed toward trans people. I don't know if it's a fear—I'm not sure what it is. People are getting beaten up because they're trans; that's just wrong. We have to send a very loud and clear message that hate crimes won't be tolerated. Everybody needs to be treated the same. Either everybody counts or nobody counts.

This could be a remnant from the pandemic, but there's a lot of fear and anger out there. And we're seeing that bleed into increased shootings, robberies, batteries and hate crimes. One of the ways to deter this is to say that we won't tolerate this behavior.

WCT: What's your biggest advantage and disadvantage in this race?

O'Neill Burke: I think my biggest advantage is the amount of experience I have. I have been on every single side of the justice system. I know what work and I know what doesn't work. I also have spent the last 15 years teaching judges; I know how to set a curriculum and teach prosecutors. The other advantage I have is that most people are recognizing that the criminal-justice system is not working right now; you can ask any witness, victim or defendant.

My opponent has pledged to follow all the same policies—retail theft and gun deferral—that have not made us safe and that have increased crime in Chicago. I think when people hear that he wants to continue down the same path, most people are saying, "That's not right."

I'm not interested in locking everybody up. I am interested in locking up people who are using assault weapons, shooting teenagers who are on the way home from school. I am interested in getting assault weapons off the streets. I am interested in detaining people who are charged with murder and attempted murder. I'm really middle-of-the-road when it comes to criminal justice. We can have restorative justice and get people back on track—but, at the same time, we can keep people safe.

WCT: And your biggest disadvantage?

O'Neill Burke: The party is not to be underestimated as far as tactics. I'll say this: I came from the judiciary. We could disagree on what the right result would be, but I never doubted any judge's desire to get it right or make things better. I naively thought that anybody entering public service would feel that way—and that has not been my experience. My naiveté about everyone's motives has been a disadvantage, but that's okay. I'm not a politician, but I'm going to make it better.

WCT: So it really surprised you that everything has not been on the up and up—even after reading about politicians over the years?

O'Neill Burke: It really did, and I know that sounds ridiculous, Andrew. I thought you go into public service because you want to serve the public. We can have disagreements about things like the retail-theft policy [in which shoplifting under $1,000 is not considered a felony] but we've seen the ramifications, with CVS, Walgreens and Targets close all over the city—sometimes in the neighborhoods where they're needed the most. Clearly, that policy didn't work—and, yet, we have politicians doubling down on it. We need to get to a place where people feel safe.

The Illinois primary election will take place Tuesday, March 19. Eileen O'Neill Burke's campaign website is www.justiceforcookcounty.com/ .


This article shared 9477 times since Mon Feb 19, 2024
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